2009 North Carolina - A Model for Northern Ireland?

North Carolina - a Model for Northern Ireland?
Gerry McKenna and Martin Lancaster

As Northern Ireland continues the transition to peace and, hopefully, prosperity after nearly 40 years of civil strife, it is worth reflecting on lessons which might be learned from elsewhere. One region where economic and educational developments since the 1960s bear close scrutiny is North Carolina. This state, based on the East coast of the Southern United States, has a population of over 8 million, not much greater than the island of Ireland as a whole. The Ulster Scots pioneers played a major role in its development and, though the State is diverse in its ethnic make-up, they are the largest single demographic group.

The State experienced many of the problems which beset Northern Ireland a few years later. It had deep-rooted civil strife; in its case racial between whites and blacks. This culminated in the famous sit in by four black students after being refused service at a segregated food counter in a Woolworth´s store in Greensboro on 1 February 1960. This resulted in numerous sit-ins in Greensboro and elsewhere as part of peaceful protest. The ´Greensboro Four´ incident was a landmark event in the development of the Civil Rights movement in the US during the remainder of the 1960s.

North Carolina at that time, and subsequently, also experienced similar economic problems which were to later overcome Northern Ireland. It was heavily reliant on its agricultural base dominated by tobacco, timber and pork production, all of which were beginning to decline, as was its then strong textile industry.

In 1959, the Governor, Luther Hodges, developed a vision of building a knowledge-based economy using as a driver the strong university sector in the State. North Carolina was fortunate in having three world class research universities, namely Duke University, a privately funded university based at Durham, together with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University at Raleigh. With the support of textile billionaire and philanthropist, Karl Robbins, Governor Hodges developed the concept of establishing a major Science Park to harness the discoveries being generated in the universities and translating them into economically important products and processes. This, he believed, would lead in turn to new companies being formed and major companies being attracted to the Science Park. He had the support of the Chancellors of the three major  universities referred to earlier. The universities are located in the form of a triangle each approximately 20-30 miles apart. Karl Robbins purchased 4800 acres within the ´Triangle´ for the Science Park and thus Research Triangle Park (RTP) was born.

Progress in developing new companies and attracting major inward investment was initially slow, but by 1965 it was on its way. It now occupies over 7000 acres, is home to 157 organisations and 39,000 employees. It is the largest science park in the world. A number of other science parks have since been developed throughout the State.

Subsequent North Carolina Governors, supported by the State Legislature, made the painful but visionary decision to focus RTP selectively on certain technologies rather than attempting to cover everything. They took the bold decision to support biotechnology through the establishment of the North Carolina Biotechnology Centre, a ´not for profit´ organisation designed to facilitate the development of high quality research in this area in the universities and to promote its exploitation for the economic benefit of the State. It also played, and continues to play, a major role in attracting inward investment. Today, largely as a result of its thriving high technology business sector, North Carolina is a significant net contributor to the federal budget. The biotechnology sector alone employs more than 55,000 people directly and another 42,000 in support companies.  A recent collaborative effort between the biotechnology industry, universities and community colleges has greatly enhanced the sector.

Wisely, it was also perceived that not only did North Carolina need high calibre research and a supply of graduates and PhDs to support high technology development; it also required a skilled technically trained workforce. The North Carolina Community College System, broadly equivalent to the Northern Ireland Further Education System, fills this need. The System, established in 1963,  under the leadership of Governor Terry Sanford (later President of Duke University and a U.S. Senator), built on the thirteen Industrial Education Centers which had been founded by Governor Hodges to provide customized training for industrial workers.  This comprehensive system of colleges, which continues to provide technical and vocational education along with the first two years of university education, is now made up of 58 individual colleges. There is a college within easy commuting distance of more than 95 percent of the population. The System has had strong central planning (this is particularly true in establishing strategies to develop the workforce for the industry and service sectors). There is significant independence of local government with local needs being determined by a local Board of Trustees.  State-wide policy is set by a State Board of Community Colleges with curriculum development and programmatic and fiscal audit also determined at the state level. What is noteworthy about the System is its flexibility to meet the ever changing needs of business and the vocational professions, region by region and sector by sector. Northern Ireland has shown significant interest in emulating this System in the skills planning effort of the Department for Employment and Learning. 

What does all of this mean for Northern Ireland? The first and foremost lesson is the requirement for strong and shared leadership and vision encompassing government, higher and further education, and business. The second is the need to focus on certain key and internationally relevant economic sectors where Northern Ireland has the potential to succeed. The third is the importance of maintaining a strong research base in these areas in the two universities and having the infrastructure and support mechanisms to translate it into economically beneficial outcomes. The fourth is the necessity of promoting the development of a planned and flexible further education system which can respond rapidly, and regionally, to business needs. A critical component of a successful strategy involves local employers being involved in curriculum development to guarantee that the workforce produced meets their workforce needs.  In addition, just as North Carolina identified biotechnology early as a sector for the future, Northern Ireland must identify sectors where there is strength in research and potential for creating industries and services to take advantage of that research. Only by creating jobs and wealth will the economy benefit from research and higher and further education. Without these approaches it will be extremely difficult for Northern Ireland to move from a high public sector dependent economy to a vibrant wealth creating one.

Former Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Ulster

Former President of The North Carolina Community College System
( Dr Lancaster is a former Member of the US House of Representatives. He is a member of the DEL Skills Expert Group ).

Original version of an article published in the News Letter, November 2009


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